We’re used to cockroaches scooting around our kitchens feeding on scraps, but research has found out that humans are turning cockroaches into a superfood. A team of scientists has sequenced a protein crystal that is located in the midgut of cockroaches. It is three times more nutritious as cow’s milk, and the scientist thinks that could be the key to feeding our growing population in the future.
Even though most cockroaches don’t actually produce milk, Pacific Beetle Cockroach (Diploptera punctate), is the only known cockroach which gives birth to young and has shown to pump out a type of ‘milk’ containing protein crystals to feed their babies.
The fact that an insect is producing milk is a fascinating topic, but what amazed the researchers is that the fact that a single one of these protein crystals contains more than three times the amount of energy found in an equivalent amount of buffalo milk.
According to the research conducted by scientists from Canada, Japan, USA, India, and France, a single milk protein crystal from the cockroach’s stomach is estimated to contain more than three times the amount of energy found in an equivalent amount of dairy milk.
Moreover, the crystalline nature means that the crystal releases protein at the same rate the protein is consumed. Milking a cockroach isn’t the most sensible option, so researchers from the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in India decided to sequence the genes which are responsible for producing the milk protein crystals to see if they could somehow replicate them in the lab.
Even the idea of cockroach milk sounds “really out there”, it has a lot of promise. Professor John Carver, the Director of the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University, thinks the milk that is of an entirely different composition to mammal milk could be produced in large-scale as a dietary supplement.
“They wouldn’t go and kill lots of cockroaches for it,” he says. “They would isolate the gene for this protein from the cockroach and then express it and grow it up in a yeast system in very large microbiological vats and produce large quantities.”
The role of Biotech
“It would require quite a bit of biotechnology to get it into a form that you would harvest and use as a food supplement, but it’s eminently doable with the technologies that we have, and it’s very common for making large dietary supplements that way,” says Carver.
Not only is the milk a dense source of nutrients and calories, but it’s also time-released. As the protein in the milk is digested, the crystal releases more amount of protein at an equal rate to continue the process of digestion.
“It’s time-released food,” said Subramanian Ramaswamy, who has led the project. “if you need food that is calorically high, that is time-released and food that is complete. This is it.”
It’s important to point out that this dense protein source is definitely never going to be for those who are trying to lose weight, and isn’t even required for most western diets, where they are eating too many calories per day.
But for those who struggle to get the number of calories required per day, this could be a quick and easy way to get calories and nutrients.
The researchers have the sequence. They are hoping to get the yeast to produce the crystal in much larger quantities- making it slightly more efficient than extracting crystals from cockroach’s guts.
The main barrier is finding out a way to get people to ingest something which originally came from the stomach of a cockroach.
“You’d probably have to keep it quiet about the origins the marketing might be the most interesting aspect of the whole thing,” says Carver.
Original source IUCrJ, the journal of the International Union of Crystallography.